By Joel Ogwang
Even before the buses hit Kampala roads, there was a buzz on the latest ‘big thing’ in the city.
To many a commuter, jumping onto a bus was an experience. The buses marked a revolution in the transport industry.
And when 100 buses hit the city roads on March 12, charging a flat fee of sh800 over a 10km radius from the Kampala city centre, many commuters thought things were changing for the better.
The buses owned by Pioneer Easy Buss (PEB) were initially planned to start operating on March 1, but met resistance from Mukono and Wakiso leaders over revenue.
That a 20km Kampala - Mukono journey, which cost sh2,500 by commuter taxis, would go for sh1,000 was too good to be true.
The buses also shook commuter taxis into lowering fares. Kampala - Ntinda and Kampala - Bweyogerere dropped to sh1,000, from sh1,500.
Were the buses hurried?
When the buses were rolled-out, they operated in nine designated routes in an apparent ‘emergency call’ less than 24-hours after commuter taxis went on strike, protesting new dues levied by Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA).
Having endured years of poor customer care from commuter taxis, anything other than the UTODA-run vans was gold for Kampalans.
However, the company seems to be collapsing under the weight of high public expectations, posing queries whether it was hurried.
“Yes, they (buses) were hurried,” says KCCA mayor Erias Lukwago. “Looking at how congested and potholed the city was, where is the space for 500 buses in Kampala?”
At the time the buses hit the road, KCCA and the World Bank were exploring a rapid bus transit system in the Greater Kampala Metropolitan Area.
“But some individuals (at PEB) grabbed the idea, yet they had only the $11.5m of the $61m required for the project,” says Lukwago.
“Yutong (the Chinese bus manufacturer) wanted guarantee to release the 500 buses, which PEB did not have. Funding was one of the issues we queried and wanted PEB to streamline.”
PEB in the spotlight
Media reports indicate that PEB acquired a $10m (about sh25b) loan from Standard Chartered Bank for the purchase of the 100 buses, which cost $80,000 each.
The firm is also struggling to pay sh6.5b in taxes to Uganda Revenue Authority, which is blamed for the delay in bring in more 200 buses by July as planned.
The targeted 520 buses by December also seems a distant dream, while those on the roads reduce by the day.
Up to sh600,000 in daily revenues off each bus is said to be sucked into servicing the loan and taxes, fuel, tickets, salaries and allowances.
PEB reportedly sought President Museveni’s intervention to keep the company afloat, but was advised to work with UTODA to gain experience in public transport.
PEB is also facing management challenges, which is why nearly 200 of its staff recently went on strike over none payment of salaries and allowances.
Even at the outset, the buses seemed ill-prepared as they lacked registration numbers, third party insurance cover, seat belts or speed governors, a prerequisite for public transport service providers.
Even before the remainder of the 520 buses arrive, PEB has phased out the Kampala - Kajjansi and Kampala - Luzira routes, creating more questions.
Merion Tibabiganya, a public transport consultant, argues that PEB lacked the professionalism to undertake such a huge project.
“Being a consultant (at the works ministry) and a member of the Transport Licencing Board, I advised (PEB) that Kampala outgrew 61 - capacity mini-buses,” he says.
“But they went against my proposal. Where can 500 buses fit in Kampala with wrong parking lots, narrow streets, confused commuter taxis and boda bodas?”
He said the 61-capacity buses are not ideal for the 21st Century Kampala. “Kampala’s population passed demand for 61-seaters 40-years ago,” he says.
“For its 64 routes, we need over 1, 200 buses with 80-passenger capacity. The buses also need a special lane, but our roads are two-lane on each side. Can one lane accommodate other motorists?”
Like commuter taxis, the buses also stop at ungazzeted stages, instead of special waiting points furnished with seats.
“They are just bigger commuter taxis,” says Tibabiganya.
In 2006, PEB signed a five-year contract with the defunct KCC, which expired with no bus on the road.
Another one-year contract signed with KCCA in December 2010 to allow piloting of the buses expired before implementation.
Upon renewal of the contract, PEB would pay sh300,000 to KCCA for each of their buses and get a specific lane for a loop monopoly on city roads.
With a sh14b target for July - September, KCCA only garnered sh9b, partly attributed to PEB’s failure to remit up to sh2.4b.
“We have not collected any money from them (PEB),” admits Peter Kaujju, the KCCA publicist.
Albert Muganga, a director, said the firm was not experiencing financial strain.
“The business is good, but we need support from all stakeholders to serve Ugandans better.” Muganga rapped KCCA for failing on their part.
“We operate on routes with no bus stops, lanes and traffic jams that are a big challenge. If we had lanes, each of our buses would be making at least eight trips a day and not four as it is today.”
“We have been having 90 to 95 buses on the road daily, but our rate of utilisation is low due to poor infrastructure,” Muganga said.
“KCCA wants us to pay dues in time, yet we are competing with taxis. How shall we raise the funds?” Fred Senoga, the managing director, said.
“We are also not collecting any dues before getting a report (of inquiry into PEB operations) and guidance from Parliament. That is when we will look to put the necessary infrastructure,” says Kaujju.
“They (PEB) did not do any consultancy services on our narrow roads. Even if KCCA complied with the contract, what mandate do we have to cut off one lane?” Lukwago said.